What actually are … so-called T-Shaped People?

Christoph Dibbern
3 min readMay 30, 2022

Feel-good manager, data scientist, customer experience designer: Digitization is not only changing products and processes but also the job descriptions and job profiles of employees — and faster and faster. Anyone who enters the labor market today can no longer count on practicing their learned profession until they retire. So what are the relevant “Future Work Skills” and why are HR departments in all industries looking for T-Shaped People?

The recruiting challenge: What does the perfect employee look like?

Often underestimated: HR departments play a central and strategic role in digital transformation. You have the important task of attracting people with the right skills and the right mindset to the company. The problem: Due to rapid technological development, it is becoming increasingly difficult to define “the perfect employee” or the right CV. University courses, job profiles, and training curricula are lagging behind the actual requirements in business — and even those who are in demand as experts in their field today may no longer be needed tomorrow.

Therefore, human resources departments are looking less and less for rigid, clearly defined career paths and rely instead on a modern and flexible set of key qualifications. At the top of the wish list: Working in agile organizations requires employees who have interdisciplinary skills. Technological know-how is becoming more specialized, while at the same time companies expect more broad knowledge — so-called T-Shaped People.

What does “T-Shaped” mean?

Employees with a T-shaped qualification profile are considered T-shaped professionals:

  • The vertical line of the “T” stands for the area of ​​specialist knowledge, for example, the subject of expertise acquired through a professional career. This know-how goes deep. Employees with pure I profiles are the classic “nerds”.
  • The crossbar of the “T” stands for broad knowledge. This can be knowledge in other specialist areas as well as soft skills such as creativity, empathy, curiosity, and communication skills.

The term is not new but was coined by David Guest in 1991 in his technical article “The hunt is on for the Renaissance Man of computing”, in relation to the increasingly hybrid requirements for IT professionals. As a result of digitization, employees are now also being sought beyond the IT industry who combine the strengths of generalists and specialists.

As an extension of the T model, people are also spoken of Pi-Shaped, Y-Shaped, or M-Shaped, depending on how the breadth and specialist knowledge are distributed: two specializations that are quite far apart in terms of content result in connection with the crossbar the shape of the Greek letter “pi”. A specialty and two other specialties that you’re not quite as “in” in are graphically similar to a Y, and so on.

What makes T-Shaped People so valuable?

Many jobs in agile organizations are located at interfaces between departments and departments. Teams are deliberately put together in an interdisciplinary manner and the success of modern innovation methods such as design thinking also depends on employees who think outside the box.

  • T-Shaped People see the “Big Picture”, grasp problems holistically and adopt different perspectives.
  • T-Shaped People like to familiarize themselves with new topics and projects and there is a strong desire for continuous further development.
  • T-Shaped People quickly find a “common language” with other departments. There are fewer misunderstandings in communication with other departments and collaboration works more smoothly.
  • With their broad knowledge, T-Shaped People support a modern culture of innovation and provide the impetus for creative solutions.
    Experience has shown that T-shaped people fill the role of agile leaders better than employees with I-shaped profiles.

Develop teams with T-Shaped People

The fact is: T-Shaped People increase the agility and innovative power — and thus the competitiveness — of companies in our VUCA world (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity). The aim in the recruiting process will therefore increasingly be to identify talents with a T-shaped qualification process and to provide an attractive working environment that actively promotes learning and offers T-shaped people development opportunities.

Systematic training is becoming a key success factor in agile organizations. The constant comparison between the HR department and the individual employees is important in order to jointly define which skills are available and which skills are needed for the future. Suitable instruments are, for example, OKR and regular skill analysis workshops.

I would be happy to accompany you in the development of a corporate culture in which T-Shaped People can feel comfortable and develop!